Stinging Nettles and Cat Allergies

Facebookers have already seen these pics. Kitty, being a fast moving black hole, is very hard to photograph.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Sorry this is sort of rambling, but context is everything.

Our friend Anne, of the pea-eating-Chihuahua fame, and the chicken-sitting-on-kitten fame, and various other fames, is a frequent animal rescuer. She came over to our house maybe 2 weeks ago with a pet carrier. She said, “Someone dropped this off at my house at 1:00 AM last night, but I have to go to work. Can you take care of it?” Inside the carrier was a tiny black scrap of fur, a three week old kitten.

Thus she launched her evil plan. We took care of the creature on work days, until she came to pick it up, until we got so used to it that we missed it when it wasn’t around. You see, she knew that no one could bottle feed a creature like that (teeny wittle paws!) and not go soft in the head and want to keep it forever and always.

So it looks like we’ve got ourselves a cat, maybe. We’d planned on getting a dog ever since our beloved dobie passed on, but the universe works in strange ways, and it sent us a cat.

However, there’s a fly in the ointment. I’m allergic to cats. I grew up with a cat, but developed this allergy later, which always seemed stupid and unreasonable. So I’ve decided to ignore it.

There’s precedent for this. I also grew up with dogs, and yet later developed an allergy to them, too. I ignored this for our dog Spike, because I wanted a dog more than anything else in the world. At first, I broke out in hives every time he licked me, but it went away. I’m trusting the same thing is going to happen here with the kitten.

I mean, come on! Were we going to put this on Craig’s List?

I know it might sound nuts, but it’s going pretty well. The allergies seem to have peaked and declined. I had a couple of bad days, with a constantly running nose and weals all over my chest from the kitty’s claws, but that’s over. Now I sneeze once in a while. I have one weal on my chest. It’s been ten days of close co-habitation with the kitten. I’m its primary caretaker, and it likes to sleep under my chin.

One thing that may be helping is that I’m drinking lots of extra strong nettle tea, sometimes adding licorice to the brew. Both herbs are supposed to be good for allergies. Andrew Weil recommends taking capsules of freeze dried nettle extract instead of antihistamines for seasonal allergies (See his Natural Health, Natural Medicine. Here’s a Google Books link.)

Do nettles really work for allergies? I don’t know. It may be all in my head–but you know what? I’m all for the placebo effect. That’s not a negative term in my book at all. Self-healing is the best healing.

Nettles are also really good for you, being full of minerals and green goodness–so there’s no reason not to try. They’re also free for the gathering in most places.

I make nettle tea the Susun Weed way. We cover this in Making It, actually:

  • Put one ounce of dried herb in a quart jar. That’s a lot, really, about a cup.
  • If you have fresh nettles, just stuff a jar full (the stingers will vanish in the hot water)
  • If you have it, you can add a piece of licorice root or a bit of ground root. This sweetens the tea, albeit in a weird, licorice sort of way, and the licorice itself may help
  • Fill the jar with boiling water
  • Let it sit 4-8 hours to get incredibly strong
  • Strain to a new jar
  • Drink it iced, room temp or gently reheated. Try to drink that quart over the course of the day.
  • Don’t keep it around, because it will lose its potency after a day. Pour it on your plants and make a fresh batch.

Kitten facts for those interested:

Kitten is genderless for now. We took he/she to the vet, and the vet was genuinely puzzled. Tricky kitty! We have to wait for more certainty.

Kitten is about 5 weeks old. He/she was more in the 3 week old range when we took the above pics.

Kitten’s name might be Nyx. Or Woad. Or Woadnyx.

Kitten came off the street but miraculously arrived with no fleas, eye or ear infections, nothing. He/she is healthy and well adjusted, and likes all people.

Kitten is entirely black, and of solid alley cat stock. The eyes have faded to grey from blue this week, but there’s no telling final color. I suspect he/she is always going to look like a scruffy Halloween cat.

Kitten was half blind and sleepy at the start of this, but now is gaining mad skilz by the day and is a holy terror, but still pretty darn cute. He/she has been threatening this post as I write, showing a cat’s instinctive affinity for computer keyboards.

The cute thing is all an act. Hail to our feline overlord! Photo credit: Anne Hars

Natural Dyeing with Woad

Earlier in the month while the boys stayed at home with Eric, I attended a French General workshop on dyeing with woad (Isatis tinctoria). Woad (from the Brassicaceae family, a cousin to broccoli & cauliflower) has been cultivated in Europe since ancient times. Woad was prized by Napoleon and used to dye his army’s uniforms. At one time, the production of woad was the cornerstone of the economy of the south of France.

Indigo on the left. Woad on the right.
To formulate the dye, the plant was cultivated and the leaves picked in the first year. The leaves are crushed and, originally, left to ferment in a vat for over a year. The pH of the vat was maintained with the urine of the male work force. The woad industry of the past supported what I imagine to be a coveted job of drinking beer & urinating. The fermented leaves were then dried into woad ball that were later pounded into a powder used for dyeing. During the elaborate cultivation and processing of the woad, it is impossible to tell if the work will yield a successful dye or in what shade. The nuanced formulation of woad dye fell out of favor with the advent of synthetic dyes.
Diluted ammonia took the place of urine to maintain the pH of the dye vats I used. Denise Lambert from Bleu de Lectoure in the south of France lead the workshop on woad. In Toulouse, she grows and harvests acres of the plant in France and manufactures the dye. The formulation of a consistent woad pigment took Denise Lambert five years of research and experimentation.
Denise demonstrated on how to slowly lower garments into the dye vats, careful to avoid air bubbles which would cause the fabric to dye unevenly, then she pulled out the material. As air hit the garment, the color changed from yellow to green to the ubiquitous blue of woad. Watching the oxidation happen so rapidly was almost like magic.
I presoaked my garments for dyeing in water, then joined the rest of the group in a day long woad dye fest, learning the technique, returning to the vats to achieve desired shades, then setting the dye by immersing the garments in water & hanging them to dry.
Stopping only for a delicious catered lunch, I quickly returning to the vats as the woad dye slowly started to loose it’s ability to transfer pigment. The sun moved very far west and the dyeing came to a close; I returned with the group to French General to celebrate with a glass of Lillet and great conversation.

The Meng sisters at French General plan to hold another Woad Workshop on September 24, 2011. I highly recommend attending. Class size is limited. I know my curiosity to dye with natural pigments has been sparked. I look forward to learning more.
More pictures of the workshop at Ramshackle Solid.

Till vs. No-Till

A 3-D view of tilling in Russia c1915

My post on lasagna gardening, which linked to a brief article by horticulture professor Linda Chalker-Scott seems to have opened a can of worms, so to speak.  Two issues came up in the comments on my post: the wisdom of using cardboard in a lasagna mulch and the pros and cons of double digging/tilling. Let’s address them in separate blog posts, beginning here with double digging/tilling.

There are some very persuasive arguments in favor of a no-till, leave the soil alone approach. Chalker-Scott in the comments section of her post on lasagna gardening says,

. . . double digging (the equivalent of tilling in agriculture) disrupts natural soil building. No-till agriculture is increasingly preferred as being more protective of the soil ecosystem. I think the same philosophy could be applied to home gardens as well. You’re right, you can boost production with a more aggressive approach to soil amendment – a similar argument is often made in conventional agriculture (compared to organic agriculture) to till, use excessive fertilizers, pesticides, etc. I guess it depends on how you regard the soil – as a medium for growing vegetables or as an ecosystem (and I’m not being judgmental). It’s a philosophical choice.

No-till agriculture advocates argue that tilling oxidizes organic matter leading to a loss in soil fertility and the creation of carbon dioxide which, in turn, leads to global warming. A case can also be made that tilling creates a soil “crust” that interferes with water penetration. And tilling disrupts mycelial networks and other soil organisms that, research has shown, form important symbiotic relationships with plant roots. 

But what about heavily compacted soils? How do you turn a lawn or driveway into a garden? It’s in these cases that I, in the past, have used double digging.

Double digging proponents would argue that the practice should be distinguished from tilling in that, unlike tilling, you don’t invert the soil structure as much when you double dig. Double digging keeps the same soil profile while loosening heavy compaction. Double-digging advocates distance themselves from the use of roto-tilling machines which invert deeper layers of soil with surface layers that contain more organic matter.

But there are alternatives to double digging and tilling that will break up compacted soils. Scott Kleinrock at the Huntington Ranch turned a former construction parking lot into a productive edible landscape without double digging or tilling. Kleinrock used what I’d call a kind of toolkit of de-compaction strategies:

  • The application of a thick mulch (Chalker-Scott suggests a minimum of 12 inches). It’s surprising how many earthworms start doing the tilling for you with a thick mulch layer.
  • Planting soil busting cover crops with thick tap roots like Daikon radish
  • The use of a broadfork or deep spader
Peaceful Valley’s “Deep Spader”
A broadfork in action

Broadforks and deep spaders get air and water into compacted soils without the damage tilling can do. Unfortunately broadforks and deep spaders are very expensive (around $200) and heavy. The deep spader Kleinrock used came from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply. I’ve tried it and it works nicely, though it’s still hard labor. If you knew how to weld you could probably make a home brew deep spader or broadfork. I’ve also successfully used a regular, inexpensive garden spading fork in moderately compacted soils.

This is clearly a topic on which reasonable people can disagree, but the no-till folks seem to have the upper hand in terms of the science. As with all gardening problems, though, context is king. Environmental factors and economic issues (those expensive broadforks) intersect in our urban gardens in complex ways. You have to make up your own mind. I’d say if you’re going to double-dig do it only as a last resort and after considering all the alternatives. While, under some circumstances, I might double-dig I would never till with a roto-tiller or invert soil structure with a shovel. But after seeing the dramatic improvement in soil at the Huntington Ranch in less than a year, I’m more inclined to try de-compaction alternatives. You could also just build raised beds and import better soil (though that strategy gets expensive).

I’ve created a poll on the right side of this blog on which you can cast a vote on tilling vs. not-tilling vs. double digging. And consider leaving a comment–I’m interested in what readers think about this complex issue.

Paleofuture Farming

From the awesome Paleofuture blog, which chronicles what folks thought the future would look like, a few notions of future farming.

Apparently, this anticipated future (which more or less came to pass) involved “lounge chair gardening.”

And, of course, factory farming:

To the generation that came up with these ideas I’ll just say that I hope the dinosaur juice that keeps those factory farms humming holds out. Personally, I’m not counting on gardening from the comfort of that hovering lounge chair while I oversee my hydroponic skyscraper operation (architects still seem to be in love with vertical farming schemes). My inner crank tells me that we might just might have get our hands dirty again. But, I have to admit, that top photo does approximate what it looks like to create Root Simple blog posts.